Why “smart cities” is interesting, first look

At first, the term “smart cities” may sound like just another bit of fluff — another one of the data industry’s fascinations. It did to me. But I’ve been reading about it, and I’ve come to think that the reality may hold real benefits for the data industry — more than just a new market for bright, shiny products.

Definitions vary, of course, but the term seems to boil down to this: It’s the use of data from the Internet of Things and other sources to squeeze more use, more security, and even more pleasure from city facilities, utilities, roads, transit, and other public resources. City administrators can spend less, for example, to make data guide drivers around congestion than to build a new lane.

You might say, well, that’s just the old dream: data analysis fixes everything! Yeah, we’ve heard that one before. But I think this is different when you try this in cities instead of businesses.

Cities and businesses both know how to hide things. But they’re different. Business executives can pretend everything’s humming along like air conditioning blowing cool air on cool heads. City officials, meanwhile, fear the hot heads, the activists, the ever growing and ever-smarter legions of data crunchers.

In cities, smell and dysfunction is in everyone’s face and nose. If it’s impossible to drive across San Francisco at four on a weekday afternoon, you know it— and people learn to assume there’s data on it somewhere. They look in the data mirror to examine it. Is it as bad as it felt? How long did it last? What caused it, and what’s being done about it? The data mirror becomes part of life. You just step in it.

That’s a fine dream, of course. But users of restaurant ratings and other attempts at quasi-public data know that such visions don’t always come true. Who hasn’t relied on public raves for restaurants or movies to find they were fooled?

Even so, I suspect that the public nature of smart-city data will give a nudge to common data pathologies. If dysfunction is in your ears and nose, smart community organizers have a strong lever on reluctant officials. Hey guys, break down the silos. Where’s the data you promised? Hey, your data stinks.

Smart cities in full flower can do even more than offer efficiency and safety. They can also make people feel good. That might be the most interesting benefit of all.

Daniele Quercia, for example, offers an “alternate agenda.” He advocates, among other things, letting data point to slightly-less-than-efficient paths between A and B that are more fun, more beautiful, or more interesting. (See his crowdsourced “happy maps” and “smelly maps.”) Who wants to live in bare, cold efficiency? Not successful people, many of whom have a good pick of places to live and work.

Imagine: data that makes you feel good.

I’ve just started looking at smart cities. I’m probably naive about some things. But so far, I think smart cities is worth attention.

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